Five years from the signing of the Belfast Agreement on 10 April 1998 it is unclear if the Northern Ireland peace process can be held up as an example of good practice.
Northern Ireland is in a post-settlement phase, but not yet a post-conflict one. Clem McCartney reviews the achievements and persisting doubts around the implementation process.
He finds it has become less inclusive and more focused on the leaders of UUP and Sinn Féin, while the British and Irish governments have engaged in a pattern of gesture politics that allows the parties to avoid the real issues. He discusses the various weaknesses in the agreement that implementation has exposed and concludes by looking at the prospects for progress after the forthcoming elections.
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Five years on from the signing of the Belfast Agreement (popularly known as the Good Friday Agreement) on 10 April 1998 it is unclear if the Northern Ireland peace process can be held up as an example of good practice. It may never be possible to give a definite judgment on any peace process – certainly not in the short term. Some seem to have created a positive new beginning for the people involved in the conflict and their societies, but there may be the seeds of further conflict lurking underneath. Others seem to have failed but we cannot be sure if the failed process has started a new cycle of reflection out of which true peace can emerge. The Northern Ireland peace process is hard to judge because there are tangible benefits but at the same time obvious and real obstacles.
Perhaps the biggest achievement of the peace process is that there are few people who would welcome a return to violence. In many ways the peace process was a sign that most paramilitary organisations had accepted that they could not achieve their goals by a military campaign and they were prepared to see if a negotiated settlement could offer a better outcome. Many paramilitary leaders said that they did not want the violence to continue into the next generation.
Violence has continued, which is perhaps not surprising given that a culture of violence had become pervasive during the previous thirty years. Ironically street violence has increased and there has been much more overt tension at the interfaces between opposing communities, as though they were testing who had won and who had lost. Though somewhat abated, violence within communities has continued in the form of punishment beatings and shootings, mainly for anti-social activities. Some sections of paramilitary groups have themselves been involved in drug dealing and other anti-social activities as they find new openings for their skills. There have been two bitter feuds within loyalist paramilitary groups. They have also been responsible for sporadic sectarian killings, though now all loyalist groups seem to have returned to a ceasefire situation. Nonetheless for people in most areas the perception is that the level of violence has markedly declined compared to the period before the ceasefires in 1994.
Politics in the devolved institutions
Striking a Balance took the story of the peace process to the end of 1999. At this point the presence of Sinn Féin in the Executive while the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had not decommissioned their weapons had become the biggest stumbling block. It has remained the issue that divides the parties and has consistently brought the devolved institutions close to collapse. However there have also been periods when a spirit of cooperation between the pro-Agreement parties has been evident. Outside the Assembly they have at times shown a greater joint resolve to deal with some of the grassroots disputes over issues such as territory and parades, which cause instability and uncertainty.
Reflections on the implementation process
To the outside observer this process must be hard to understand. Having made the enormous efforts and mental reorientation to reach an agreement, it seems remarkable that the parties have been so hesitant to make the further effort to embed and consolidate the new institutions. However what has been happening provides instructive insights into the difficulties of an implementation process or a post-settlement situation.
Moving to a post conflict culture
Northern Ireland is in a post-settlement phase but the experience of the last five years demonstrates clearly that this is not the same thing as a post-conflict phase. Although the violence has diminished, the conflict has not and the situation has been characterised by argument and stand-off. It is not a collaborative period but one where each side is struggling for advantage to maximise its gains from the Agreement in whatever way it can. This in fact was the intention of the Belfast Agreement: that the conflict over equality and constitutional aspirations would be transferred from the streets into the debating chamber where it might be sorted out by constitutional if not cooperative means.
Geography of the negotiations framework
The negotiation process with the political parties which led to the Belfast Agreement was characterised by inclusiveness. All the parties were involved apart from the DUP and its allies. Bilateral meetings took place but the issues came back to plenary sessions on a regular basis. This had the important function that all parties knew pretty well what was happening and had to justify their positions to the other parties involved. It also meant that smaller parties and sometimes one of the larger parties could stand back from a deadlock because they did not have a strong position on the topic under discussion. They could then make alternative suggestions or facilitate dialogue between the parties having trouble with the issue. And in the plenary session, if not in bilateral meetings, the parties heard each other explaining their positions and difficulties and understanding developed. Under the chairmanship of Senator George Mitchell it was clear that responsibility for the future arrangements lay in the hands of the Northern Irish parties. He would not find a solution for them and he could not impose a solution on them.
Persuasion and inducements
Along with this focus on key individuals there was also a change of style within the negotiation process that saw the governments increasingly relying on persuasion and inducements. This seemed to reflect the natural approach to problem-solving of the British Prime Minister. Tony Blair had, in other situations both internationally and domestically, found charm and the offer of incentives were effective ways to gain support. However this approach is much more limited when faced with convictions as deeply held as those of participants on both sides of the Northern Ireland conflict. They will not compromise on these convictions for the sake of short-term political advantage or material gain.
Weakness in the Agreement
The issues just discussed refer to difficulties which are not in the Agreement itself but in the way the parties and the two governments have chosen to work on the implementation. But with hindsight there are also difficulties in the Agreement itself. The way in which the Agreement requires support in each community is an essential element but it is also criticised for thereby entrenching ethnic divisions. Members of the Assembly have to declare their identity and on key votes there must be a majority in each community. This also has the corollary that those who do not identify with either bloc such as the Alliance Party and the Women’s Coalition, have no influence on such votes unless they register as one or other identity group. In this sense, a weighted majority of, for example, 70 per cent gives less protection for each identity group but does mean that there is an incentive to maximise support from other groups to get sufficient votes to reach the agreed majority. The Agreement included provisions for review but did not have a mechanism for ongoing problem-solving.
We have seen that under the current style of politics it has not been possible to move into a new era and embed the peace process. One might expect that if the DUP and Sinn Féin emerge from future elections as the dominant parties there is little likelihood of progress given their histories of militancy. However the prospect may not be so bleak. The DUP would then be in a position where they would have to take responsibility for what happened and there are some indications that they are beginning to recognise this and show signs of becoming more accommodating. They would also be freer than the UUP who are constantly accused of being too soft by the DUP. If the DUP becomes responsible there will be no other significant more militant group to criticise them on this ground. It is often more militant groups that have the capacity to reach an agreement and carry it through – Sinn Féin being a case in point.